Laos poor but fertile and resource rich

We have just returned from two weeks trekking and touring in northern Laos which provided a wonderfully varied experience of amazing countryside, the friendliest people, and food made with the freshest produce. In fact it’s effectively, if not certifiably organic, because the economics of life and farming in Laos make it virtually impossible for it to be anything else. Laos has one of the lowest annual incomes in Asia – US$100 per month is fairly well off – and 75% of the population live in rural communities.

But they do have mineral reserves and plenty of water, fed by the Mekong River and several other large tributaries which make the catchments very fertile, with growth conditions improving further south. Further north there are dry rice fields on the ridge lines of hills which take several hours to walk to, but there are also plenty of rice paddies on the flat.

The mountains form a cultural fault line between Laos and Vietnam, summed up by the French saying, “the Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow.” As the most bombed country in the world, a result of being caught in the crossfire between the Americans and North Vietnamese, the Lao people have retained a remarkably relaxed attitude to life which will never make them wealthy, but it does make them delightful people.

Within reach of the Mekong and its tributaries, the vegetables, many of which are grown on reclaimed river banks after annual floods, are plentiful and sold at the local markets which display an enormous range of produce – vegetables, tropical fruits, cane sugar, river fish, pork, beef, duck and chicken, as well as a selection of dead wild birds. Apart from avoiding tap water, we had no qualms about the food, because it was so fresh, most of it accompanied by the ubiquitous sticky rice.

Rice is the staple diet and the main source of income for all families, so the annual rice harvest in November is the most important time of year. Further north, conditions make it hard to grow more than one rice crop, although there is some evidence of ploughing and planting a secondary crop like watermelon as soon as the rice has been harvested. There’s also the suspicion some families are content to stop working as soon as the rice is in, while others are prepared to work harder for greater economic gain.

Livestock consists of cattle, pigs, water buffalo, chickens and ducks, all of it individually owned and housed in and around the villages. In fact in one village we were confronted by a bovine family heading for the main road, led by the bull, closely followed by the cow and calf, while the villagers scattered. Cattle are only kept for beef with no milk at all – when it’s time to turn a beast into beef, either to eat or sell at the market, the slaughter is done with a bullet in the head, as there is nothing remotely resembling an abattoir anywhere.

The Lao government has established 20 Natural Protection Areas which preserve the biodiversity of 14% of the country’s land mass as well as having communities living within them and allowing forestry for timber production in addition to watershed and conservation. The communities within these NPAs are not permitted to use the slash and burn method of clearing land for farming which is used elsewhere in Laos, causing a pall of smoke to hang over the countryside early in the year and rendering the cleared land unusable for some time after the first two years.

Despite the government’s efforts, most people in Laos are totally unaware of conservation issues being more concerned with survival, but ecotourism is becoming a large enough factor for some communities to see the direct benefits of a sustainable environment. Unfortunately upwards of 50 hydroelectric power schemes are either being developed or investigated for their feasibility whereas at present there are only four in operation. While these will contribute major overseas income which Laos desperately needs, they will also have a disastrous impact on a large percentage of the population through flooding large areas of forest, changing fish migration patterns and irreversibly changing whole ecosystems on which the people have depended for centuries.

Laos is in the process of joining the ASEAN free trade area, but it’s unlikely to have much bearing in the short term on its agricultural exports and it has next to no industrial production. However it does have plenty of natural resources which its richer neighbours – China, Thailand and Vietnam – are keen to exploit and willing to help with finance.

Laos has a long way to go to catch up with the developed world and it may not get the process right at all times, but it has great potential. It just needs skill, money and a bit of luck.

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2 Responses to “Laos poor but fertile and resource rich”

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